Chapter 7

Arlie spent the days after his father's funeral organizing and cleaning out the house. The place had years of clutter to sort through and Mollie stopped by several times to help with determining what should stay and what should go.

"Of course, it would be easier if you'd decide if you should stay or if you should go," she told her kid brother who had yet to commit to a possible future in South County which would include taking over the diner.

Max had returned to his Marine commitment, presently stationed in Barstow California. Mollie was the executor of the estate and she didn't want to sell the house if Arlie would agree to stay and take over the taxes. Alfie had been resistant to that obligation although he had no other real plans.

It was a late March Saturday and Arlie was busy with the task at hand at the house. Sometimes he'd stare out the window at his pickup truck and fight the urge to get in it and drive away, never to look back, but he knew he owed it to Mollie to help out as best he could and not desert her in her time of need. She was mourning the loss of their father the most and Arlie was trying to be as supportive as he could even as he battled his own demons and grief.

Arlie heard a car in the driveway and assumed it was Mollie stopping by to offer a helping hand. It was only when someone rang the front bell that Arlie realized that someone else was there for a visit.

Arlie saw Willow's face through the pane of the door glass as he approached the door. He had wanted to call her after seeing her at his father's wake but he wasn't sure if there was any real point to that given his life circumstances. He opened the door and gave her a smile.

"Well, this is a surprise," he said as a way of a greeting.

"Is it?" Willow asked as she stepped through the door, taking a look at all the cardboard boxes and trash bags piled throughout the hall and rooms.

Arlie assisted Willow with her insomnia cure a few more times that summer before he returned to North Carolina at summer's end knowing he'd most likely not see Willow again – and he was right. She and Roberta were both gone when Arlie returned to South County the next summer and his father offered no explanation as to what had happened or where they had gone.

Arlie and his Dad worked together at the diner and they spent time with Mollie and Stan but Arlie was haunted by the memory of Willow and he missed her and her insomnia cures.

Now Willow was walking through the house again for the first time in nearly ten years. So much had changed. It seemed so long ago now.

"I never thought I'd see you again," Arlie admitted as he followed Willow up the stairs.

The upstairs hallway was cluttered with more boxes and trash bags. Arlie had moved into his old room but Willow walked down the hall and stood in the doorway to what was once Mollie and Lisa's room and served as hers during her stay. It didn't look much different from when she had used it although Arlie's Dad had used it to store junk over the years.

"Where did you go?" He asked.

Willow was standing in the door frame with her arms folded across her chest staring at the room. She was wearing a heavy turtle neck sweater on the cool March day and a pair of designer jeans. "Everywhere," she answered.

"But you came back?"

"It was by chance, really," she explained, throwing him a look where he stood in the hall. "I saw a job posting for the charter school. I was in Texas at the time. I figured why not?"

"When was that?"

"Two years ago."

"Did you see my Dad?"

Willow shook her head no. "I didn't want to make him feel bad."

"Because of your mother?"

"I told you she would leave."

"Where is she now?"

"With some guy in New Jersey," Willow revealed. "She runs a dance studio. Can you believe that?"

She stepped into the bedroom and took a seat on the bed she once used. Arlie followed and took a seat on the bed he once used.

"She did dump me when I turned legal," Willow told Arlie. "She managed to sober up when she got too old to strip. I try to stay as far away as possible I speak to her once in a while and it's pleasant enough. Safe with the distance between us."

"What were you doing in Texas?"

"My life became complicated when I fell for a cowboy," Willow reported. "I thought it was something I wanted – living on a ranch in Texas."

"But it wasn't?"

"My insomnia came back," Willow revealed. "I was overwrought by anxiety and racing thoughts. I screwed up that relationship because I don't deserve that kind of healthy love. He deserves better."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm not normal," she answered. "I'm damaged and messed up."

"Who isn't?" Arlie wanted to know.

"I'm pissed that our childhood experiences affect the way we behave for the rest of our lives," she said. "My mother really did a number on me."

"It's not your fault," Arlie offered.

"My mother's choices and morals left me shamed," she sighed.

"I bet that's why you became a teacher," a knowing Arlie said.

"I want to help other kids," Willow admitted. "Help stop bad things happening to them. I try to pay attention to traumatic stresses of adolescence."

"My father left me his coin collection," Arlie said.

"I didn't know he had one," Willow said.

"Me either," Arlie admitted. "There was a lot I didn't know."

"Listen," she said knowingly. "Everybody makes mistakes and we have to live with them. Don't beat yourself up about your Dad."

"He was a functioning alcoholic by the end," Arlie sighed. "I keep finding empty bottles everywhere. In drawers. Under furniture."

"I'm sorry," Willow said with sympathy.

"Do you remember the last time we were together in this room?" Arlie asked as he glanced around their familiar surroundings.

It was the night before his return to North Carolina. He helped her with her insomnia cure one last time.

"It was a nice goodbye," Willow smiled. Then she gave him a long look. "What happened to you?"

"Why do you ask?" He sounded defensive.

"You didn't come back either," she pointed out.

"I joined the Army."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "Max and Lenny are career military. My mother's third husband was in the Navy for twelve years. I went to a military academy high school. Did I have a choice?"

"I suppose not."

"I eventually got deployed to Afghanistan," he revealed. "Atop an armored vehicle."

"And?"

"The reality of combat hit me harder than I imagined," Alfie admitted. "It's a weird feeling when your buddies get blown up."

Willow waited for him to continue but he was staring off into space.

"That wasn't the worst of it?" She guessed.

"I think I might have killed a teenager," he said quietly. "I don't want to say much more about it."

"Okay," Willow said quietly.

"I got injured in an explosion," Arlie said. "They flew me to an Army hospital in Germany. Lots of pain pills. I became a bit unglued. Lots of drinking, getting in trouble. Got stuck in a psych ward for a while. Eventually, they kicked me out of the Army. Not exactly a hero's welcome home. I know I let Max and Lenny down. Paul too. That's why I didn't go back to Oak Ridge."

"Or come here," Willow realized.

"I drifted around," Arlie said. "If I couldn't be a soldier, what was I? I felt worthless bouncing from job to job, town to town, state to state. I had nightmares and panic attacks and got into fights. Ended up at a VA Hospital in Topeka where I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression."

Willow stared at him for a long moment. "How are you sleeping?" She asked.

"I suffer from insomnia from time to time," he said. "How ironic is that?"

"Me too," Willow replied. "But I know a good cure for it."

Alfie stared down at the floor. "We're not normal," he sighed.

"Take over the diner," Willow told him. "So you won't have to drift around anymore."

"I'm not sure if that's enough," he sighed.

"I'll move in here with you," Willow said.

"Why would you do that?" Arlie asked with surprise, finally looking at her.

"I was Sleepless in South County," she reminded him as she stood from the bed and started to undress. "You were the only one who cured my insomnia."

"Maybe now you can cure mine," Arlie realized as he too began to undress.